JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Attorneys for the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) have voluntarily released the organization’s former official news journal from a long-running lawsuit against several agencies that removed themselves from convention control.
Word & Way, the historic Missouri Baptist news journal founded in 1896, has been dismissed from MBC litigation that has stretched over nearly eight years and had its roots in a successful attempt by conservatives to take control of the convention from moderates.
The convention, through its attorneys, filed a document in Cole County Circuit Court on April 23 voluntarily releasing the news journal from all claims against it.
The MBC filed legal action against five formerly affiliated institutions on Aug. 13, 2002, in an effort to force them to rescind changes in their charters.
The Baptist Home retirement-home system, the Missouri Baptist Foundation, Word & Way, Windermere Baptist Conference Center and Missouri Baptist University each changed their corporate documents to self-elect trustees — the Home in 2000 and the others in 2001.
“We’re pleased with the dismissal and confident that it will put an end to litigation for Word & Way,” the news journal’s lead attorney, Jim Shoemake, said by phone April 23.
The MBC dismissed its legal action “without prejudice,” meaning that it would have the option to re-file the case. Windermere was the first of the five agencies to be released from the Cole County case.
Judge Richard Callahan ruled in Windermere’s favor on March 4, 2009, centering on two main aspects of the convention’s contention in the center’s case — corporate membership and a contractual relationship.
The judge ruled the MBC is not a member of Windermere’s corporation and that no contract exists between the two. Until August 2000, the MBC governed Windermere and Word & Way through its executive board.
Messengers to the 1999 MBC annual meeting approved a reorganization plan that included incorporation of the center and the news journal as separate entities. Drawn up in 2000, the charters for both the conference center and the newspaper noted the new corporations would have no members.
The other institutions involved in the lawsuit were already separate entities from the convention. In addition, Callahan had ruled that, taken together, Windermere’s articles of incorporation and the MBC’s governing documents — its constitution and bylaws, its business and financial plan, and the MBC Executive Board’s articles of incorporation and bylaws — do not create a contract between the two entities.
The MBC lost its appeal of the Windermere case, and the Missouri Supreme Court refused to review it last year.
“The trustees and staff of Word & Way are elated to finally have this lawsuit behind us,” Editor Bill Webb noted. “We lament that the Missouri Baptist Convention took so long to take this action.” Webb said that, given the parallels between the Windermere and Word & Way cases, the paper’s supporters have been hoping that the convention would take action to withdraw its suit for nearly a year.
The Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear the convention’s appeal of a lower court’s decision in Windermere’s favor on May 5, 2009, effectively ending the convention’s main suit against the conference center.
A separate MBC suit against Windermere regarding a land dispute remains active. Webb called the dead Winderemere suit “a mirror of the convention’s case and arguments against Word & Way,” but noted that both the paper and the convention “have incurred unnecessary legal fees because convention attorneys waited nearly a year to drop the lawsuit against us.” Webb added.
Michael Whitehead, legal counsel for the Missouri Baptist Convention, said in a statement quoted by Baptist Press that convention leaders remain convinced the newspaper’s breakaway was wrong but concluded it is in the convention’s interest to halt legal efforts to recover it.
Whitehead said assets owned by Word & Way, including a 2001 mailing list and some old computers, no longer warrant the cost of legal action to recover them.
Meeting ban continues
Although the case has been dismissed, Word & Way will still be excluded from in-person coverage of MBC committee and executive board meetings.
In 2003, convention officials cited the ongoing litigation as the reason for a presidential directive banning Word & Way from all meetings.
In a Nov. 19 letter that year, then-board president (and now MBC Executive Director) David Tolliver issued the directive, but apparently no official board action was taken to reiterate the directive.
At their April 13 session, board members officially voted to exclude Word & Way or its agents from attending meetings. The news journal has continued to send a writer, who remains outside the meeting room, since the 2003 ban.
In an April 16 letter to Word & Way, Tolliver indicated the newest action applies indefinitely. He gave no reason for the continued exclusion. A status hearing in the case against the remaining three entities is set for 2:30 p.m. April 27 at the Cole County Courthouse in Jefferson City, where both the paper and the convention are headquartered.
Attorneys on both sides will argue over the order in which pending motions should be heard. Lawyers will argue those motions at a hearing set for 10 a.m. on May 11.
Word & Way is part of the New Voice Media partnership along with Associated Baptist Press, the Baptist Standard of Texas, the Religious Herald of Virginia and Associated Baptist Press. Webb serves as a member of ABP’s board of directors.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Brown is associate editor of Word & Way. ABP Managing Editor Robert Marus contributed to this story.)